San Rafael Swell, Interstate 70


I’m not certain if Interstate 70 across central Utah is the most desolate stretch of highway on the Interstate system, but it must be near the top of the list.  For more than 100 miles, from Green River to Salina, you won’t find a single gas pump, soda machine, or flushable toilet.  But you’re still going to have a Swell time.

The “Swell”, of course, is the San Rafael Swell, one of those impressive Utah geological features that reminds you that the Earth went through some crazy changes, a long time ago.  The swell is an anticline — an area of sandstone that’s been pushed up in a rather dramatic fashion.  As you approach it from the east along Interstate 70, it looks like you’re about to cut through a huge triangle that’s sticking out of the ground.  The triangle is the San Rafael Reef, and it’s just the beginning.  The swell goes on for miles, and there’s a wonderland of eroded canyons inside.

Just before entering the swell, there’s a rest area with pit toilets and a huge cross, remembering Utah Trooper Dennis “Dee” Lund, who was shot and killed in 1993 during a high-speed pursuit along the interstate.

As you pull back onto the highway from the rest area, the interstate begins its journey through this narrow cut.

Interstate 70 is the only paved road through the San Rafael Swell.  It divides the swell into north and south areas.  The entire San Rafael Swell measures roughly 40 miles by 75 miles.

As soon as you’ve made your way through the reef, the road climbs to the top of the Swell.  3 miles in, there’s another rest area, which provides a nice view north towards Black Dragon Canyon.  The San Rafael River is out there, somewhere.

Black Dragon Wash is right at your feet.  The rocky canyon drops off next to the parking area.

As I continued the drive through the Swell, the weather turned worse, the temperature dropped, and it began to snow.  By the time I reached the next rest area…

… huge, wet flakes were falling.  The snow made it hard to see the valley to the north.  A sign explained that, on a better day, you might see a plume of smoke from a coal-fired power plant.  The coal comes from the surrounding mountains.

It was getting tough to see even the nearest hilltop, so I decided it would be a good idea to get moving again, before the weather got any worse.

The highway tops out at 7,886 feet, just before mile marker 82.

I drove past at least one other viewpoint/rest area, but stopped at the last one (before exiting the swell).

At this rest area, there’s a good view south towards Capitol Reef National Park.

As the road heads downhill from the final rest area, it passes through another dramatic cut, eventually ending up in Castle Valley.

There’s plenty more to do in the San Rafael Swell, than just drive through on Interstate 70 — but it all involves driving on dirt roads, which is something I couldn’t do, thanks to the bad weather.  Take exit 131 to Buckhorn Draw Road, which travels north to a viewpoint called  “The Wedge” (which I visited on a 2010 trip through the Swell, along with Swinging Bridge and the Buckhorn Pictograph Panels).  At the Wedge, you can view an area known as Utah’s Little Grand Canyon.  The road continues to Utah Route 10.  At the same exit, you can take Temple Mountain Road south, and eventually end up at Goblin Valley State Park. will give you a lot of ideas for exploring this area.

After Castle Valley and the intersection with Utah Route 10, there are more mountains to pass through, before reaching Salina.  I couldn’t see much of the scenery in this area, because of the snow and fog, but judging by the steep slant of the mountains, this must be an impressive stretch of road!  (Watch for a couple of abandoned railroad tunnels on the left side of the road as you drive through here.)

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